Mercury Rising: The Role of Climate Change in Armed Conflict

by Natasha Ion

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credit: J Williams/Wikimedia Commons

Rising sea levels. Blazing forest fires. Thick city smogs. These are the images that dominate when we talk about climate change. But what about the more complex, political and social effects of a warming planet? Any accurate analysis of climate change needs to take into account global inequalities, indirect impacts, and, importantly, the growing role of climate change in war.

Environmental changes have always been an understudied aspect of armed conflict. With global warming a greater concern than ever, we need to look to the past to understand the impact a changing climate could have on the future of war. Determining causes of conflict is a complicated task, and climatic changes must be combined with other factors that contribute to inter- and intrastate violence. Yet, a growing body of evidence suggests that the environment’s role in armed conflict will only become greater as climate change increases.

The natural resource exploitation that is integral to anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change has been a violence in itself throughout history. We only have to look at atrocities committed by corporations such as Rio Tinto and Shell, or the colonial and racist violence of states looking to exploit resources on indigenous land to understand that climate change and violence are intrinsically bound.

The role of natural resources, whether scarce or abundant, in driving and prolonging wars can be seen in a large number of historical conflicts. The central role of diamonds in the 1991 Sierra Leone Civil War highlights just one example of how the resource curse—the propensity of areas rich in resources to face more economic and political problems—can play a role in contributing to bloodshed. The concentration of violence in diamond mining areas, with political collapse precipitated by corruption in the mining industry, indicates how natural resource exploitation can be a major cause of warfare.

Climatic events such as droughts and flooding, or “climate stresses,” have also consistently contributed to armed conflict throughout history. One example dates back to the collapse of the Maya civilization over 1,000 years ago. Although part of a heated debate, many historians and scientists attribute the end of the Maya period to an intense drought. With a halving of annual rainfall, researchers have posited that tensions between Maya kingdoms escalated into outright conflict due to competition over food and water supplies, ultimately resulting in the decline of the civilization as a whole.

Links between environmental factors and insecurity might seem like common sense; it is unsurprising that an already unstable society might be pushed to take up arms in extreme environmental conditions. Violent conflict resulting from competition over scarce resources has always occurred, as much between local actors—such as farmers—as on a larger, interstate scale. What is perhaps less expected is the extent to which climatic changes and stresses influence armed conflict. In 2011, a team of researchers from the Earth Institute found that the risk of civil wars in tropical countries doubled during El Niño years and may even account for one-fifth of conflicts in the fifty years preceding the report.

With climate change growing as a problem, we must address the role that human-induced global warming has already had on war and admit that it will only get worse from here. As anthropogenic climate change is now an indisputable fact, the question becomes one of how far human-caused climate stresses and natural resource exploitation will affect the relationship between the environment and conflict.

The Syrian Uprising

Increasingly, political analysts and academics are attributing a causal role to human-caused climate change in the Syrian uprising of 2011, which resulted in its ongoing civil war. Although united in a sense with other Arab populations that sought a departure from colonial legacies and autocracy during the “Arab Spring,” Syria was particularly affected by localised climate stresses.

The 2006-07 drought in the Fertile Crescent was the longest and harshest drought on record, resulting in the collapse of the agricultural system in northeast Syria. The effects of drought were compounded by a rise in global food prices in 2010, after Russia imposed a wheat export ban due to its own drought. Climate scientists estimate that there is an 80% probability that Russia’s 2010 drought would not have occurred without global warming. The combined effects of these droughts forced up to 1.5 million of Syria’s rural population to migrate to urban centres already strained by the arrival of Iraqi refugees. President Assad’s subsequent response, which consisted of downplaying the impacts of the drought, was insufficient and greatly contributed to the anger and dissent that led to revolution. Looking beyond the unhelpful “out of the blue” characterization of the Arab Spring and deeper into complex environmental factors suggests that armed conflict in the region was in fact entirely predictable, if not inevitable.

Rally in al-Assy square in Hama, Syria, July 22, 2011. Shaam News Network

Such a conclusion is not to argue that the Syrian civil war was caused solely, or even directly, by climate change. Conflict is never monocausal. Rather, climate change should be considered as a “threat multiplier,” to use security jargon. For climate changes and stresses to contribute to armed conflict, they must be combined with other factors, such as weak governance or oppressive structures. We might ask why Syria was the only one of the drought-hit Fertile Crescent countries to have faced a conflict now labelled a “climate war.” Why did drought in Syria lead to demographic upheaval whereas in Jordan, for example, it did not? A unique set of circumstances was necessary to reach this end point. Climate change only had the effect it did because of Assad’s inaction, weak governance capacity, and corrupt food production structures, factors lacking in the other Fertile Crescent nations.

War in Darfur

Armed conflict in Darfur, a region in the west of Sudan, has been similarly influenced by climate change. Sudan’s ongoing violence, set against the backdrop of two civil wars, must be regarded within the context of its particular vulnerability to the impacts of climate stresses. Situated in an area which has been labelled the “ground zero” of climate change, more than 70% of Sudan’s population depends on climate-sensitive resources and industries, such as forestry. There is strong and growing evidence that the effects of climate change are already being felt in the region. Indeed, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that “amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis.

Darfur has faced sustained drought since the 1970s. Resulting mass migration in the 1980s had a destabilising effect on the region, increasing the violent struggle between local populations competing over natural resources. The 2003 outbreak of civil war between Darfuri rebel groups and the Khartoum government was preceded by a severe drought in 2001, which has been linked to anthropogenic climate change. Importantly, the rebel factions were predominantly made up of the ethnic groups forced to compete over scarce resources, including water, since the steep decline of rainfall in the latter half of the 20th century. The rebellion resulted in what is widely termed as the first (and ongoing) genocide of the 21st century. Carried out by the Sudanese government, it is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of up to 480,000 Darfuri people.

The violence has been portrayed almost solely as an ethnic conflict by both foreign media outlets and regional actors using ethnicity as a recruiting tactic. Some academics have argued that the drawing of binary and oversimplified ‘Arab/African’ ethnic tensions simplifies the narrative and obscures the ecological dimension of the war. While the ethnic aspect to the Darfur conflict is important, we must acknowledge the complexity of the war’s causes. Sudan is uniquely vulnerable to climate change, the effects of which will be disproportionately harsh in the region. Political players globally must acknowledge the environmental dimension of the conflict—which will only become more significant—if they truly want to tackle the causes of conflict in Darfur.

Viewing Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier

Of course, as with many debates centred on climate change, the role of global warming in both Syria and Sudan can be contentious. Some claim that arguing for climate change’s role in the Syrian uprising is part of a rhetorical attempt to create sensationalist headlines or to serve particular policy motives. Other rebuttals focus on different causes, maintaining, for example, that it was purely Assad’s economic policy that drove internal migration. Yet interviews conducted at the time of the conflict anecdotally highlight the primacy of drought as a motivation for certain rebel groups. Moreover, those asserting the role of climate change here estimate it to be at most a threat multiplier.

Regarding the Darfur conflict, a minority of scientists dispute the role of climate stresses. They argue that there is little persuasive correlation between drought and conflict in Sudan. The majority of evidence, however, says otherwise. Some negate the role of climate changes in the Darfur conflict by pointing out that unlike the rest of the Sahel, which is also experiencing drought, only Darfur has experienced such extreme levels of violence. Again, climate change should be viewed as a “threat multiplier.” Not all regions or countries experiencing extreme weather changes inevitably see the eruption of armed conflict. Climate stresses must be combined with specific supplementary conditions, like the exacerbation of resource scarcity through the concentration of power in Khartoum.

Those who seek to negate or diminish the role of climate change in the wars in Darfur and Syria by arguing that its impact is becoming overemphasised miss the point. It is not easy to clearly measure the concrete effect of anthropogenic climate change on threat multipliers such as drought. The lack of quantifiable data leaves concerns surrounding the role of climate change in conflicts open to dismissal by anyone, from climate deniers to those with a vested interest in downplaying the effects of global warming. Yet whatever the exact extent of its impact, we have seen clear evidence pointing to climate change having some role in previous conflict outbreaks. More importantly, it is overwhelmingly apparent that climate change is getting worse.

Researchers at the National Academy of Sciences in the United States have predicted that droughts of the severity and duration of the one seen in the Fertile Crescent are now more than two times as likely to be a result of human interference in the climate system. Other studies predict that by the end of the century, one in four armed conflicts will be a result of changing climates and that there will be an exponential increase in climate-fuelled wars. Not only will local climate stresses lead to scarce resources and recruitment fuel for militias, as we have seen in Sudan, but greater fluctuations in global food prices such as those which so greatly affected Syria will continue to have knock-on effects. The Middle East and North Africa are particularly vulnerable to such fluctuations, and it will continue to be those contributing least to climate change who feel its effects the most. What we have already seen in Syria and Darfur should serve as an alarming spur to action.

It is encouraging that the role climate change has played in armed conflict is being further investigated and addressed head-on across multiple fields. Of course, viewing the issue through any one lens is too simplistic for a problem that is far from simple. A greater dialogue needs to take place between scientists, academics, and policymakers. Realistic adaptation to inevitable conflicts and drastic action to reduce climate change will be vital. We have to acknowledge that this is happening now in countries contributing very little to the climate crisis. We must seek to address this global imbalance and the increasingly devastating impact of climate change if we want to see a world with less war.

Natasha Ion is a climate and human rights campaigner who holds an MA in French and History from the University of Edinburgh and currently works for the French Red Cross.